A writer of sociopolitical depth far beyond his thirty years, PEN/Hemingway Award-winner Akhil Sharma says he looks to "bad" writers -- "the ones where you can see most easily what they're attempting to do" -- for inspiration and instruction. One example: Ernest Hemingway himself, namesake of Sharma's prestigious literary award.
He must be joking, right? Well, sort of. Sharma maintains that he became a writer by first being a reader, mentioning everyone from Tolstoy to such countrymen as V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. "But Hemingway mattered so much to me," he says. "To say a bad thing about him is like saying a bad thing about family." Still, he points out, as a writer, Hemingway "lets you know all his tricks." And which other "bad" writers wear their literary tricks on their sleeves? "He's the only dead one," Sharma says of Papa, "so he's the only one I can talk about."
That said, however, Sharma's first novel, An Obedient Father, a personal story set in New Delhi against a backdrop of political change, seems more Dostoyevskian in nature. From its sweeping historical environment to the minutely depicted moral decay of its corrupt protagonist, the book remains finely detailed even as it takes giant storytelling steps. Now available in paperback, it's well worth a second look -- or listen, for that matter: Sharma will appear Thursday evening at the Tattered Cover for the bookstore's seventh annual PEN/Hemingway reading.
A New Yorker who recently quit his job as an investment banker to concentrate on his literary craft, Sharma is now working on a second novel, always a hard pathway to forge for writers of highly acclaimed, incandescent first novels. "That's a scary thought," he admits. "I'd worked very hard to get my job; to walk away from it was like abandoning a novel.
"But here's the reason I can justify it: You're doing a noble thing. It shows you care enough that people can imagine a different world because of what you write. I believe art is transformative: Reading good books makes you wiser."
Of course, it helps to let a wise man lead the way.